I spent the entire first half of my first day as a teacher feeling torn between crawling under the table to hide or rushing to the bathroom to throw up. In those last few minutes before the first few students wandered into my classroom, I asked myself, "What the f*&k were you thinking when you took this job?!" with more intensity than any other time in my life. To put it into perspective, I felt no fear about getting married at 21 years old, had no hesitation about bringing children into the world at 23 and 27 (my third child wasn't born at this point), and felt nothing but excitement at moving across the country twice to cities I'd never seen before . . . but a classroom filling up with teenage girls had me quaking in my boots.
I had a plan, though, so with my tongue thick in my mouth, I introduced myself and asked them to take out a sheet of paper and a pen. One of my favorite books is Straight Man by Richard Russo, and I love one of the exercises the main character uses with his writing class, so I adapted it for use with my students.
"Everyone look at the person on your right. Do you know her pretty well?" General nods of assent all around.
"Then here's what I want you to do. Complete the sentence: 'I know ____________; she's the kind of person who ___________' about the person on your right."
They blinked and glanced around at each other; a few giggled. One girl raised her hand and asked, "Um, are you going to, like, read these out loud to the class?"
"No, this is just for me to get to know you all a little bit. And I should have said before, I only want POSITIVE comments, please. Don't tell me she stole your boyfriend or what have you, okay? While you're doing that, I'm going to walk around with my camera and take your photo so that I can learn your names. My goal is to know all of your names by our next class."
They seemed a little dubious, but they went along with it. It was the first day, after all--I had a level of cooperation then I might not have had if I'd tried this even a day or two later. I realize now how many different ways this could have backfired or gone horribly wrong, but thankfully, it worked.
And it got me through the first day.
I went home that night and cross referenced the "I know ______" sentences with the photos of smiling young girls holding name cards in front of them, and I learned that Stella* (blonde, blue eyes, looked about ten years older than everyone else) was the kind of girl who spoke Polish on the train so that no one around her could understand what she was saying. I learned that Charlie* (blondish-brown hair, athletic, perfect smile) could whistle while hopping up and down on one leg (or something equally ridiculous). They described each other with tenderness and care, even in cases where I found out later the girl was widely disliked or avoided socially. As I memorized their names and little tidbits about them as seen through the eyes of a classmate who happened to sit next to them that morning, storylines started to emerge for each girl and the relationship between us began.
I was able to go back into the classroom the next day and call every single student in my classes by name, even though they sat in different seats and wore their hair in different styles to try to throw me off. They still scared me, but I already loved them enough to move beyond the fear and try to teach them. Some of those girls and other students who followed are still part of my life.
*not their real names
I learned a lot in that one anecdote from my teaching experience. Knowing people by name goes a LONG way towards establishing a real connection and making people feel appreciated. Investing time and energy to understand something about someone's story pays enormous dividends when you ask them to follow you somewhere. That junior class--and I taught every single one of them--had powerful athletes, leaders, scholars, and socialites, and if they had turned on me, I would have been toast.
Instead, we were able to throw out a patronizing, infantile textbook in favor of a curriculum I developed on the fly, visit the UN, host interesting speakers, conduct Skype interviews with cool people all over the world who were tackling issues like hunger and HIV/AIDS, and write one-act plays about social justice issues that the freshman theater class used as part of their last trimester's work.
I also learned that my camera can save me when I feel frozen and don't know what to do. The objectivity and distance provided by the lens gives me a critical moment to pause and collect my thoughts before I have to dive into engagement and action. It helps me capture images that speak to me over and over as I review them, edit them, and show them to others. I never feel more comfortable than when I have the heft of my dSLR in my left hand. It's funny--that's the same hand and shoulder I used to carry my babies, and I often cradle my camera in my elbow the same way I did my infant daughters and son.
This past week, I had a dream that my camera somehow ended up falling into deep water off a dock of some kind. I can't say for certain whether I knocked it off the railing, someone else knocked it off, or how exactly it came to fall, but I watched it go and knew I would never see it again. Other people around me wanted me to go in the water to get it, but I said it was too deep, the camera itself would be fried, let it go. I remember sighing as I realized I had let my insurance lapse (hello, real life intrusion into dream life!) and then accepting that it was gone. Much as I loved it, it was just a thing. Let it go. Move on.
At first I interpreted that to mean that my photography business, which is probably the most commercially viable part of my life at the moment, isn't going to offer enough substance as I move forward in this career transition. I know that. It is really, really hard to make a living as a photographer, even if you love it as much as I do. However, since making photographs is such an essential piece of how I engage the world, whatever I do next will involve photography somehow. That seems pretty certain.
But then I had coffee with a wise friend who reminded me that large bodies of water in dreams--like what my camera fell into--signify spirituality, and since the camera is my go-to lens for integrating my external and internal worlds, having it fall into something representing spirituality and the unconscious at this time of self-examination and transition is significant.
She also helped me admit that often the camera is a buffer between me and the world: it's how I control what I let in and what I keep out, and sometimes I use it to gain access to people and places I wouldn't be able to reach otherwise (like into a bride's room while she's getting dressed or behind the ropes at the Rodeo parade). For me to lose that buffer opens up a whole new way of relating to the people around me, one that's less about careful framing and composition and more about openness and authenticity.
That got my attention.
I spent a lot of the last week listening: listening to men and women who know and love me tell me things about myself I might have skipped over or missed, reaffirm things I know to be true, and offer suggestions and guidance about what to do next. It was like an extended version of "I know Emily, she's the kind of person who ______," and it proved similarly revealing. I'm starting to see a couple of ways forward, some with a long term focus and others with more immediate applications. As important as it is to know and think for ourselves, allowing safe, trusted people to speak truth into your life about who you are is important, too. None of us sees ourselves clearly enough to make it through these decisive moments alone.
I enjoyed my kids and said yes as often as possible when usually I would have had to say no. I took my son to lunch and to play miniature golf on his day off for parent/teacher conferences, and we both watched in amazement as I made a hole in one on the first hole. I then proceeded to trounce him in both rounds we played, and even though he melted down to the point I had to threaten to quit playing if he didn't show better sportsmanship, he had newfound respect for me in his eyes on the walk back to the car. To get buy-in from a kid, you have to know their currency; evidently his has something to do with his mother being able to kick his ass at something. I've spent years trying to quash my competitive nature; it might be time to let it back out.
In the first week of the Pivot Project, I tried to push myself to stop and take photos of whatever happened to catch my eye. I went places like the public library that I haven't been in years; returned phone calls and responded to emails; worked through conflict in positive ways; exercised and spent as much time as possible outdoors; fed myself good food and slept more than I have in months. Things feel settled and peaceful for the first time in God knows how long, and while I can feel the edge of anxiety creeping back in a little bit, this is a much healthier place to encounter it.
I think what I hope more than anything is to end up in a place where I can feel that same creative edge I felt on that first day of teaching (which seems a lot like fear but with a more productive nature) and the same love for the people in front of me that I felt as I called each girl by name on the second. That's what I'm reaching for.
And so the Pivot Project continues.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.